An Odyssey in Pieces: The Dawn of Man, Day 2, Day 3

As the sun rises slowly in the east… we fade up pic on a slumbering prelapsarian primate, and simultaneously we fade up a nice, creepy bit of Ligeti on the soundtrack. I don’t know that Ligeti had been used in a movie before, certainly not a mainstream one. He was so off-the-beaten-track that Kubrick didn’t even bother to clear the rights, perhaps assuming that all composers found in the “Classical” section must be safely dead. Ligeti successfully sued, not just for the unauthorised usage, but for the tampering done to his work, particularly at the film’s end.This music is the first “man-made” artificial sound we’ve heard since earthfall, and it accompanies the appearance of the Monolith, the first “man-made” artificial object we’ve seen, not counting Saul Bass’s MGM logo and the credits. The first shot of it is surprisingly matter-of-fact: the towering intruder doesn’t even break the horizon line, being tucked neatly into the landscape so it seems less tall, less celestial, than later. A follow-up shot lets it touch the sky, and it appreciably grows in grandeur. I guess Kubrick is onto a slow build-up thing here — certainly he would have thought about whether we should initially see the slab standing out against his front-projected African skyline.

The composition, importantly, is an exact repeat of a wide shot already used at least twice. And this n’t laziness, it’s the clearest way to make it evident that SOMETHING HAS CHANGED in this timeless desert.I do wonder, realistically, if the ape-men, who have apparently not figured out how to use a rock to hit a tapir (or another ape-man), would really be that curious or freaked out by this new, but obviously inert object. But possibly it’s already doing whatever it is it does to their brains. Certainly the view of the sun cresting its upper side seems significant later.

Chimpanzees can use sticks to get ants out of holes. But they don’t think of picking up rocks and bashing each other’s heads in, so far as I know. Though they do get into murderous battles, and they do sling poop at each other. The real evolutionary breakthrough may be in MANUFACTURING tools, seeing an object and being able to imagine it changed and newly useful.

Still, Kubrick & Clarke’s vision is very persuasive as it unfolds. Our primitive ancestors calm down and are next seen pottering about amid bones and tapirs. A transition achieved by a straight, sharp cut, which runs clean through the soundtrack too, severing Mr. Ligeti’s choral freakout with Godardian abruption. That kind of musical cut was undreamed-of, I believe, before JLG and the nouvelle vague, and it points up the fact that this is the possibly greatest needle-drop soundtrack of all time.And Moonwatcher gets an idea. Kubrick signals this by cutting to the sun-on-monolith shot he used earlier — so this is clearly a mini-flashback as the sun would have moved on from this position. It signals a switch being thrown in Moonwatcher’s brain. I remember when I first saw the film, I’d read a plot synopsis beforehand — I wish I hadn’t! — and I was looking at the screen wondering, “How are we supposed to KNOW the monolith has implanted a thought in the ape-man’s brain? Today, it seems perfectly clear to me.The impossible low angle of Moonwatcher smashing up old bones was shot on an elevated platform outside the studio, with buses going by in the background, according to Arthur C. Clarke, who calls it the only time Stanley went on location. The reason being, presumably, that such an angle, if attempted on a sound stage, would have shot past the top of the front projection screen. Anyway, we get some really funky editing to Also Sprach Zarathustra, along with the slomo — the tapir falling over in a fleshy wobble-tumble (HOW did they make the poor thing do that?) is cut in twice in a way that’s always surprising, and the editing becomes more fragmented exactly as Moonwatcher’s boneyard does. The first closeup of M’s arm with clutched thighbone shows him raising the instrument to strike, but in the second iteration the arm is already raised and descending, despite having been seen at ground level, smashing, one frame earlier. It’s the kind of aggressively discontinuous action cutting Peter Hunt brought to the cutting of the Bond films.

It’s also the great Eureka! moment in all of cinema, and the exception to Billy Wilder’s rule that you should never show a character’s face as he’s having an idea.Keith Moonwatcher.

Now the ape-men all have bloody handfuls of meat and are munching away contentedly. The tapirs continue to graze around them — they can’t adjust, all at once, to the fact that their previously passive bipedal friends are suddenly going to kill and eat them. They’re going to be extinct soon.And so is the neighbouring tribe, judging by what happens next. Although these guys at least have the sense to run away when one of their number is clubbed to mulch. So, gifted with the ability to hunt more effectively, our fore-fore-forebears promptly use their extraterrestrial superpower to commit hominidcide. Great. As a kid, I definitely didn’t catch on to the harsh judgement Kubes was passing on his own species.The pace has increased — we no longer fade gently to black between scenes. Night falls, demonstrated by a single sunset, and then it’s abruptly daylight again and the big monkey ruckus is kicking off, Moonwatcher and his droogs confidently moving in on Billy-Boy’s gang for a Bedrock rumble.

Moonwatcher throws his weapon triumphantly in the air. And Arthur Clarke, in The Lost Words of 2001, describes being on hand, with the buses going by in the background, when Kubrick got the idea, just after he’d filmed the bone-smashing montage. “The shot was repeated so many times, and Dan [Richter, as Moonwatcher] smashed so many bones, that I was afraid we were going to run out of wart-hog (or tapir) skulls. But eventually Stanley was satisfied, and as we walked back to the studio he began to throw bones up in the air. At first I thought this was sheer joi de vivre, but then he started to film them with a hand-held camera–no easy task. Once or twice, one of the large, swiftly descending bones nearly impacted on Stanley as he peered through the viewfinder; if luck had been against us the whole project might have ended then. To misquote Ardrey (page 34), “That intelligence would have perished on some forgotten Elstree field.””

(Robert Ardrey is the author of African Genesis, a source text Clarke drew upon for the Dawn of Man stuff.)I can’t decide how to treat the famous match cut from bone to spacecraft. If I make the next chapter about the Blue Danube sequence, I risk chopping the cut into two sequences and missing what’s great about it, which is the way it unites them (cuts are really joins). So I’m inclined to devote an entire post to it…

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18 Responses to “An Odyssey in Pieces: The Dawn of Man, Day 2, Day 3”

  1. Grant Skene Says:

    “And Moonwatcher gets an idea. Kubrick signals this by cutting to the sun-on-monolith shot he used earlier — so this is clearly a mini-flashback as the sun would have moved on from this position. It signals a switch being thrown in Moonwatcher’s brain. ”

    That’s an interesting reading, but not the way I see it. I see the cut back to the monolith as an indication that it is a different day.(precisely because the sun is in the same place). The montage of tapir-killing, again, suggesting several days of “progress”.

  2. Grant Skene Says:

    Also, you mention the fade outs. I have always found Kubrick’s use of them in this film intriguing. They feel slower than typical to me. Like the manual closing of the iris in silent films. The effect is like slowly closing eyelids, as though this is a reverie, or a dim memory. Perhaps Heywood Floyd’s dream.

    It also gives a sense of being watched. I think that adds to the feeling there is an intelligent observer via the monolith.

  3. “Also Sprach Zarathustra” rises “heroically” to herald what-would-be-mankind’s key discovery — how to make weapons and kill. No wonder Kubrick’s next was “A Clockwork Orange.” His vision of mankind (post-ape) is pitch black.

  4. Grant: Kubrick uses a landscape with sunrise to signal a new day in between the discovery/hunt and the first murder. So I definitely don’t think the repeated low angle monolith view (image 5 above) is signalling a time shift, especially as it’s sandwiched between two shots of Moonwatcher looking thoughtful in what’s clearly a continuous piece of action.

    Labs did dissolves and fades in standard lengths: 12, 16, 24 frames… Kubrick favours ones at the longer end of the scale, even though he claimed not to like dissolves — he claimed he didn’t like title cards and superimposed titles too, but he uses them A LOT. Possibly, whenever Kubes says he doesn’t particularly like a piece of technique, we should take it as meaning he REALLY likes it, is crazy about it. But ashamed?

  5. He’s no more to be trusted than his alter ego HAL

  6. HAL’s problem, we are told, is that mission control told him to lie to the astronauts, and that made him crazy. With Kubrick (“crazy as a shothouse mouse,” as George C Scott said), I don’t think he’s been programmed to lie, but seems baffled by the undoubted fact that, for all his deep thinking, his important choices were instinctive, and could not be rationalised…

    Whenever Ken Adam drew a shape, he’d ask WHY? And Ken couldn’t tell him. I think that drove him batty.

  7. Fiona Watson Says:

    I’m sure some enterprising chimpanzee somewhere has killed another chimpanzee with a rock. It may not have been observed by Dame Jane Goodall, but it’s certainly not out with the bounds of possibility. Elephants, on the other hand/trunk HAVE killed people with rocks. There’s at least one incident on record of a captive elephant killing a human being who was taunting or annoying it in some way by hurling a rock with its trunk. There are also captive elephants who attempt to emulate human speech by putting their trunks in their mouths to modulate the sounds. I fear the aliens made a grave mistake in giving a monolith to our ancestors. Perhaps if they’d given one to mammoths the world would be in a better state than it’s in now.

  8. Fiona Watson Says:

    Oh, and the ‘ant sticks’ you mentioned ARE tools, stripped of their foliage to make them smoother and sometimes shortened to make them more effective.

  9. In the tool use category, our simian friends are about as clever as…the crow.

    Seriously, Goodall found that one alpha chimp gained his position by a found object, a barrel IIRC, which he banged on and threw in displays.

  10. Well, crows are really, really smart. Pigs, too.

    It certainly seems as if, if there’s a particular form of behavious that proverbially “separates us from the animals,” tool use (and adaptation, as Fiona points out), ain’t it,

    “Theory of mind,” where you can speculate about what another person knows that might be different from what you know, only develops in humans at age 3 or so… but apes and whales and dolphins have it.

    Whether language is the defining difference seems to depend on how we define language. Signing apes and talking parrots can learn to use words appropriately, but they can’t construct fully grammatical sentences, according to Mr. Chomsky.

  11. “The composition, importantly, is an exact repeat of a wide shot already used at least twice. And this n’t laziness, it’s the clearest way to make it evident that SOMETHING HAS CHANGED in this timeless desert.”

    Kubrick does this again with the decoupage of the Poole spacewalk mimicking the Bowman spacewalk — up until the pod turns; we get the entirety of how the routine *should* be, so that we can be chilled when we see the thing that *shouldn’t* be. (Cf. Danny on his tricycle in The Overlook.)

  12. Yes!

    Who was it… Bava? A crewmember said he was an artist, because he repositioned the camera for every shot (rather than relying on panning and zooming to reframe crudely). Quite true. But sometimes artistry lies in not moving a thing.

    (And then there are all those weird continuity glitches in The Shining where the composition is the same but the furniture has moved in the best Guy de Maupassant tradition.)

  13. eht--%/%--eht Says:

    KUBRICK filmed the monkey scene last and is obviously
    on a sound stage.

    Sort of his way of telling us NASA was making a monkey
    out of ALLL of us.

    TAKE HEED

  14. I don’t really want to get into how nuts this is.

    But OK: is it “sort of” Kubrick’s way of telling us something, or is he actually telling us something? How do you “sort of” tell somebody something, and would you redesign your entire multi-million feature shoot in order to do so?

  15. Grant Skene Says:

    Wasn’t Kubrick just telling us that his attention to detail in the man-ape costumes was so effective that the Academy didn’t even realize those were men in suits and gave the Oscar to Planet of the Apes instead?

  16. That was Arthur Clarke’s guess, yes. Arguably, John “Argo fuck yourself” Chambers had an even harder task on PotA, but undeniably he succeeded less well.

  17. […] THE DAWN OF MAN Days Two & Three […]

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